|By Don Johnson
At a New England estate auction in the 1960s, about two dozen pieces of American stoneware placed along the driveway went untouched by the auctioneer. Rather than selling what he considered to be worthless merchandise, at the end of the day he asked the remaining bidders to each take home a piece so that he wouldn’t have to haul them to the dump.
Times have certainly changed!
Anthony Zipp, who recalled the above story being told by an old-time antique dealer, sees a completely different side of the stoneware market today. His family-run auction business, Crocker Farm, specializes in American stoneware and redware. In March they sold a small, cobalt-decorated stoneware water cooler made at the Boyton Pottery of Albany, N.Y., for $103,500.
Zipp wasn’t surprised by the price. The six-figure sum is the latest highlight in a continuing trend of strong interest in American stoneware, redware and folk pottery.
“The best stoneware is bringing tremendous prices,” he said.
The Zipps began selling stoneware at antiques shows in 1983. The family dropped off the show circuit after starting a website in 2001. The turning point for the business, however, came with their first auction in July 2004, when a bird-decorated H. Myers water cooler made by Henry Remmey Sr., sold for $72,000, far exceeding the $46,000 received for a piece sold about three years earlier. “There was a big buzz about that,” Zipp recalled. “That sort of got people thinking stoneware is really hot.”
Strong demand for the best examples continues to intensify, as shown by the $103,500 Boyton water cooler. In part, bidders were attracted by the folk-art nature of the piece, incised with two fish and two birds. The date of 1817 and the maker’s name also contributed to the allure.
“It had everything,” said Zipp.
The water cooler is one of five pieces of American stoneware to sell at auction for more than $100,000. Zipp believes pieces currently in the $50,000 to $60,000 range will also bring six-figure prices in the future.
“People who are very interested in good-quality folk art are now spending that money on American stoneware,” said Zipp.
Buyers are especially interested in the rarest examples, with the decoration being of key importance. “They know which piece is unique and which is not,” he said. “If you present something that’s the only one known, that’s what brings it into that high level.”
The same holds true for American redware, with quality, one-of-a-kind items also bringing top-dollar prices. Crocker Farm sold a John Bell whippet figure for $41,800 in May 2005 and an Anthony Bacher 1879 wall pocket for $35,650 in March 2008.
Bruce Waasdorp, who has specialized in New York and New England stoneware at auction since October 1993, has also watched the hobby evolve. “The upper-end market seems to be strong,” he said. Decoration remains crucial, with unusual designs bringing unheralded interest, such as a 6-gallon crock with a dotted fox, made by F. Stetzenmeyer & G. Goetzman of Rochester, N.Y. It brought $89,100 at a Waasdorp auction in March 2007.
“The only weakness I see is the entry-level things,” Waasdorp added. That’s often a simple matter of supply and demand. “The supply side is much stronger than the demand side,” he said of low-end stoneware, especially with many retirees selling their collections.
It isn’t just decorated stoneware that’s drawing record prices. Southern stoneware and folk pottery are also hot.
Jim Daniel of Daniel Auction Co. set a new mark for a piece of stoneware from Crawford County, Ga., when a two-handled stoneware jug impressed FLB (for Franklin Lafayette “Fate” Becham) realized $17,600 in March. The record was short-lived. Daniel sold an ant-trap storage jar for $18,700 during his inaugural Southern pottery auction on June 28.
The rare form, which featured a recessed area above the neck to hold water, keeping ants from getting to the jar’s opening, was probably a special-order item. The piece wasn’t marked, but Daniel said it was unmistakably from Crawford County.
“It was absolutely mint, in remarkable condition without a flaw on it,” he added.
Also from Crawford County, a double-handled syrup jug impressed CJB (for Jackson Columbus “Jack” Becham) made $7,150. A 5-gallon churn marked JA Boggs, Rock Mill, Ala., incised on both sides, having some hairlines, sold for $2,860. Folk pottery included a vintage northern-Georgia face jug, the figure smoking a pipe, at $3,190.
One buyer told Daniel he believes Southern stoneware is scarcer than a lot of Northern pieces. “He thinks it’s undervalued, and that’s why he’s buying a lot of it,” Daniel said.
Other bidders view Southern stoneware as a good investment. While they hope the items will appreciate over time, there’s another factor involved. “One guy said the dividend you get on this kind of investment is the joy of looking at the things,” Daniel added.
In addition to vintage stoneware, some works by contemporary Southern potters, including Lanier Meaders, are still in demand. That market, however, isn’t as sure-footed. “The contemporary is a little soft, even though there are some avid collectors,” remarked Daniel.
Specialty stoneware auctions aren’t the only places where great pieces can be found. Decorated stoneware, redware and folk pottery are often mixed into Americana sales. Cowan’s sold a salt-glazed Anna pig flask for $12,337.50 on June 6. The vessel was unusual not only because of its small size, at 4½in long, but also for the incised Arkansas railroad, stagecoach and river map, and for the location of the spout, being on top of hog’s back. It went to a collector in Arkansas.
Anna pig flasks draw bids from collectors with different interests, according to Diana Wachs of Cowan’s. “We’re selling to the map people. We’re selling to the pig collectors. We’re selling to the railroad people. We’re selling to the regional stoneware people,” she said.
The folk-art characteristics of the piece also came into play. “They’re an elbow-in-the-ribs kind of thing with their anatomic parts and where the cork is. This one had the cork in the top of it; that’s not where they are on the others. They’re typically in the pig’s behind.”
Buyers of American stoneware and pottery are often looking for items from a specific area. “Regionalism has finally come home,” said Wachs. “People are finally recognizing the value of things of their place and the scarcity of them.” That results in a now-or-never way of thinking when it comes to acquiring scarce items.
Despite collectors who are more knowledgeable than ever, some great pieces do show up in unlikely places. A Remmey stoneware bank incised with a bird went unsold at a Florida yard sale, where it was priced $60. It was later consigned to Crocker Farm, where it sold for $39,600 in May 2006.
Where do those unusual pieces of stoneware originate? “They’re coming out of barns, cellars and attics,” said Zipp.
Meanwhile, prices continue to rise for the best examples. That begs the question, where’s the sky if the sky’s the limit? Zipp believes American stoneware has the same potential as more-established pieces of folk art. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see stoneware get to the level that weather vanes are bringing,” he said. Considering that weather vanes have topped the $1 million mark, that’s saying something.
p>* Cowan’s, Cincinnati, Ohio, (513) 871-1670, www.cowans.com.